Tag Archives: London’s private rental market

The Faustian Bargain that is the British Housing Market

When economic issues are discussed in parliament they are rarely those that matter. Issues that really matter are also almost absent from the media. There are economic issues that are not spoken of in polite society or parliament, One such problem that is continually swept under the carpet is the horrendous balance of payments deficit, the largest of any developed economy. This debt is subject to constant revision so it is hard to give accurate figures, but the for last quarter of this year it reached 7% of GDP. A figure a third of that caused a financial panic in 1967, whereas today far worse figures provoke no reaction.

Gordon Brown when questioned about this problem, said the world had changed and it was no longer a problem. What he meant was the government of the time could fund the enormous trade deficit from the large inflows of cash coming into the UK from abroad. To put it simply we were using the money invested in the UK to pay our debts to the rest of the world. This particular economist thinks that it is very poor policy to remain the perennial debtor nation that relying on the goodwill of others for the means to pay its debts.

The government has to take extraordinary measures to ensure that this money keeps flowing into the country. This is achieved by introducing policy measures to ensure that property prices keep on increasing so making commercial and more particularly residential property prices continue to rise. Falling property prices the week as a result of Brexit caused a panic in government. Action was taken immediately to slow or halt the fall in property prices. The government increased the amount of money banks would have available to lend to the property market. Simply by ensuring that there is plenty of cheap money around to buy property will tempt buyers into the market hoping to pick up bargains, which in turn keeps up property prices

However the government has made what is a Faustian deal with the property market. The deal is quite simple, the government will sacrifice the rights of the young, the low paid and those resident in London to accommodation in return for the massive inflow of cash from foreign investors into the property market. All these investors want is ever rising prices and the government is prepared to acquiesce even if it means denying the young, Londoners access to adequate housing. If large parts of London are subject to significant depopulation due to rising house costs that is acceptable to the government, as the alternative is much worse. The much worst alternative is admitting to the horrendous trade deficit and reducing the import bill through imposing strident cuts in the standard of living for the nation’s people, better to lie and fantasise about the strength of the economy than admit to some painful truths.

One of the most effective ways of pushing up house prices is to reduce the supply of housing relative to demand. This is perhaps the most objectionable part of the Faustian deal, that is deliberately pursuing a policy that will leave millions living in substandard accommodation. Governments no longer build social housing, the once thriving council house building programme has ceased. The consequence is house building has fallen to the low levels ever seen in modern Britain. House building is now left to private developers and the underfunded housing associations. The various right to buy schemes have resulted in the large scale transfer of local authority housing to private landlords. Consequently market power no resides with the private landlord they can constantly increase rents, often charging higher and higher rents for what is increasingly inadequate accommodation. This increasingly profitable private rental sector attracts foreign investors, the people whose money is needed to finance the balance of payments deficit.

Various denial of truth strategies are used by politicians to excuse their inaction in what is an increasingly worsening housing crisis. One of the worse is that if the government intervenes in the private sector it will worsen the crisis. They claim that if the government intervenes by increasing security of tenure or controlling rents, private landlords will leave the market in droves reducing the amount of accommodation available and making many more homeless. This is nonsense as too many landlords have invested too much money to withdraw from the market. Legislation could be introduced to ensure that existing landlords did not withdraw from the market, through the compulsory registration of landlords.

What our political classes are unaware is that Faustus had to pay a high price for the help of Mephistopheles, he had to surrender his soul. Similarly the new Mephistopheles in the guise of international finance requires a high price for its support, the surrender of the integrity of the political classes. To keep the cash following into our economy this new Mephistopheles demands that policy be structured meet to its needs. What it requires are two things the first is constantly rising property prices and the second that in the event of a price crash the government takes measures to stabilise prices, so ensuring that the investors do not suffer too big a hit. The governor of the Bank of England in fulfilling this promise, this week announced a whole series of policy measures to stabilise the property market. The fact that these measures would also protect the house owner  from the threat of increased mortgage costs and possible repossession was only of secondary importance. Even George Osborne (Chancellor) admitted that his new policy to support new house buyers was a measure whose primary importance was to keep up house prices.

London’s dire housing situation, are the banks also to blame for this?

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Reading a blog by Holly and Rhiannon on the New Statesman’s website prompted this post. In their blog they described the appalling conditions in which many young people live in London. Conditions reminiscent of those prevailing in the poorest parts of Victorian London. While the obvious villains are the new breed of landlord exploiting a dysfunctional housing market, these people are merely the catspaw in a highly dysfunctional inegalitarian society. Who are the real villains. One group are the third of MP’s who are buy-to-let landlords, who put their chance to earn a profit above the needs of the poorly housed young. What really is happening is a structural change in the economy that disadvantages the young and the poor, who are often the same. There is at the heart of this change a familiar villain the bankers and the City of London.

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How the bankers can in large part be blamed for the poor living conditions of the young in private rental accommodation can be explained by the structural change in the British economy engineered by the banking community. This explanation starts with how a business makes a profit. There are two ways either that business develops and new product or service that people want or it acquires the right to sell an existing service or product and is able to increase the price at which it sells the product or service by exploiting the market. Apple with their successful IPhone would be an example of the first and Centrica and the other energy companies that make up the dominant cartel of energy companies would be the other. Bankers in part have made their money in part through the second route. The banking market is dominated by the big four who can exploit the market for money handling services by collaborating informally. Credit card charges are exorbitantly high and yet no bank undercuts the others by offering a low interest rate credit card. Any deals offered are merely incentives to change card companies. The £80 billion of bonus payments to be paid to the bankers this year is merely another example of increasing the charges for money transaction services made by the banks, its the exploitation of a captive market.

However there is a way of profit making unique to the banks. To understand this other way it is necessary to go back to Tudor times and Henry VIII. Henry was constantly overspending building and furnishing palaces fit for a Renaissance Prince. There were also the almost constant wars against France and the need to build a modern navy to defend the UK against aggressors. When faced with the inability to pay his bills Henry resorted to debasing the currency, that is reducing the quantity of precious metals in the currency. This enabled him to produce many more coins with his limited stock of gold and silver. The losers in this situation were Henry’s creditors who received payment in the new debased currency. The pound in their pocket was now worth much less. Debasing the currency was a common practice for insolvent monarchs who wished to reduce their debts to manageable proportions. Unfortunately this new debased coinage had the effect of impoverishing the less well off as it was inflationary and increased food prices. When the less well off were the majority it had a very negative impact on national well being. Contemporary bankers like Henry VIII have similarly debased the pound sterling to benefit themselves at the expense of the rest of the nation.

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What is little understood is that in contemporary Britain it is the banks that are responsible for the supply of money in the form of bank deposits. Only 2% of money in circulation is notes and coins. It is banks through the process of credit creation that create most of the money in circulation. Realising the significance of this power governments in the Social Democratic era, but since 1971 all limits on the power of banks to create money have been removed by successive governments. The only limit of the amount of money the bank create is what the bank decides its reasonable to create. Perhaps leaving the bankers to decide how much money to create is not the best of economic policies. When Lehman Brothers collapsed it shocked many observers to discover that the banks deposits (bank money) was 50 times greater than its reserves. Later it was discovered that this was general practice and in fact many banks exceeded that ratio.
EU regulations require that banks equity total 1.5% by value of a banks deposits, which means European Banks are entitled to create bank money (deposits) that are 66 times the size of their reserves. The UK banks are marginally sounder as the ratio for them is 1:50. However their opposition to this limit and pleas for delay in its implementation suggest that even that ratio is exceeded in practice by our banks.

The power to issue money gives the banks incredible power. In 2010 the UK’s GDP(National Income) was £1.46 trillion, while bank deposits I estimate as totalling £7.3 trillion. Anybody glancing at these figures will realise that it gives the banks the power to dictate the direction of the economy. It is a power the banks don’t hesitate to use, most notably in 2009/10 when they succeeding in persuading (!) the government to save the banks by adopting a policy of national austerity.

This control of the nation’s money supply gives the banks the ability to direct the nation’s spending policies. If these excessive bank funds had been directed into developing the nation’s infra structure or long term industrial development their effects would have been less pernicious. It is no coincidence that this period of exponential growth in bank money was the period in which the number of new build homes declined catastrophically. To build a new housing estate meant money would be tied up for a long time in a construction project, which was unattractive when quick returns where available in other sectors in the housing industry. With a febrile housing market money lent on mortgages offered a quick return as there was always a large turnover in housing stock. Money was always being repaid from the sale of houses by customers wanting to move up in the housing market. Not only that but mortgage loans could be bundled up and be sold on as as part of a Collaterized Debt Obligation to other banks providing yet another source of ready cash.

The superior purchasing power of the banks enabled them to redirect activity in the housing market away from new build houses to the sale and resale of ‘second hand’ houses. There was a collapse in effective demand for new build houses, as all the money was going elsewhere to more profitable forms of speculation. Simultaneously the rise in prices of traded houses pushed up the prices of starter homes, reducing the purchasing power of the incomes of the first time buyer. Now the average house price is 5 times the average income, whereas most of recent history it was 3 times. Banks had effectively debased the domestic currency by reducing its purchasing power in terms of what really mattered, securing a home.

This change was effectively masked by a decline in interest rates, which reduced the cost of mortgages. In an economy in which people increased derived an income from property speculation it did not seem to matter.

Speculation in the various financial markets further increased the incomes of bankers and traders in the City of London. Bonuses of £1 million were becoming common place for traders in the City of London. It comes as no surprise to discover that this year England has become the largest market for Ferrari. What must be understood that the vast profits derived from this trading was money profits not real profits. It did not add to national wealth so much as become a charge on national wealth. Given that the bankers etc. now had control of a disproportionate share of the nation’s money they could outbid the rest of the population for the most desirable goods and services. Chelsea and Knightsbridge became the home of bankers, poorer residents were pushed out into other areas. Even less expensive areas in London such as Islington have become no go areas for professionals other than those who work in the financial trades.

Inflation figures whether shown in the Consumer Price Index or the Retail Price Index fail to show the extent of the true devaluation of the domestic currency. Since housing is one of the most significant items purchased in an individual’s lifetime it should be shown in a separate index and that would indicate the true decline in the value of the domestic currency. Giving bankers control of the money supply has resulted in them debasing the domestic currency as effectively as Henry VIII. Instead of reducing the value of the content of the currency, they reduce the value of the currency by increasing its supply of money, making each domestic pound worth less. Further by gaining a stranglehold over government economic policy they have been able to limit the incomes (money held) by the majority through persuading the government to adopt supply side economics and domestic austerity, which have kept incomes for the majority in real terms at 2003 levels, which means the bankers and the super rich can through their spending increasingly determine what is produced in the UK. The shrunken purchasing power of the majority means they have less say over what is produced, therefore less affordable housing.

UK government through surrendering control of the money supply to the banks have been able to remake the economy so that increasingly not just bankers but increasingly large parts of the population to look too making income through speculative activities, rather from gainful employment. It is a population with little optimism for the future that is attracted to the gambling websites, as they see it as the only chance of making money. A speculative economy in which the financial elite make fortunes through speculation in currency, commodities and equities is an unfair society as most are denied that opportunity. One such speculative activity is the buy-to-let property market in London, with prices increasing at a rate of 11% a year, the buyer cannot fail to make money. Since all too often its a short term speculative investment there is no desire to make the purchased property habitable.

Bankers I believe share a disproportionate part of the blame for the housing crises in the UK. Only by taking control of the money supply away from the banks can a fair and equitable society be created. There are lots of policies that could achieve this, one of the best is increasing the banks to hold a larger ratio of share equity (reserves) to bank deposits. A gradual increase of the amount of equity to deposit ratio to 1:10 would end many of the evils of the current system.